The spread of COVID-19 in the United States could have been dramatically reduced if a mandatory mask policy was enacted in every state beginning April 1, argues a new working paper from the Vancouver School of Economics and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). The ongoing research – not yet peer reviewed – currently estimates such a policy could have decreased overall COVID-19 cases in the U.S. by 17 to 55 per cent by the end of May.
“Our preliminary findings suggest a universal mandate for employees at public facing businesses could have potentially saved thousands of lives,” said Hiro Kasahara, co-author and University of British Columbia economist. “We believe this is the first economic analysis to potentially demonstrate the power public policy has in fighting viral spread.”
The scientific evidence surrounding the effectiveness of masks to reduce COVID-19 transmission has been subject to debate and evolved over the course of the pandemic. Since mid-May, more than a dozen states now have mandatory mask polices in place. The UBC and MIT researchers believe their study corroborates the available medical evidence that masks may be an effective prevention measure for COVID-19.
“From an economics standpoint, a mandatory mask policy also involves relatively little financial disruptions for business to function,” said Kasahara.
The researchers also looked at how the spread of the virus was impacted by the polices that were enacted across the country, including stay at home orders, and school, business, and restaurant closures. They estimate seven million or more Americans would have been infected without these policies, combined with public health information around social distancing. Stay at home orders alone, according to their estimates, prevented 500,000 to 3.4 million infections.
To conduct their economic analysis, the researchers used U.S. state-level data on COVID-19 cases, tests, and policies, as well as movement trends from Google Mobility Reports, which tracks people’s activity over time and in various places in public.
Kasahara’s co-authors are Paul Schrimpf, an associate professor of economics at the VSE, and Victor Chernozhukov, a professor of economics at MIT. This working paper of was recently made available on medRxiv, which distributes preliminary reports on research not yet certified by peer review. The researchers wish to share their available findings now because of their relevance to the situation at hand.
medRxiv states: “medRxiv is receiving many new papers on coronavirus SARS-CoV-2. A reminder: these are preliminary reports that have not been peer-reviewed. They should not be regarded as conclusive, guide clinical practice/health-related behavior, or be reported in news media as established information.”